On June 8, 2008, I was living in Medellín, Colombia teaching librarians the basics of digital media, when I used the service FutureMe to send an email to 40-year-old me 12 years in the future:
Steven Johnson was one of my favorite bloggers and authors throughout my late 20s. Though he is more than a decade my elder, I saw something of myself in our shared appreciation of literature, technology, neuroscience, and the amusing absurdity of the human condition. By 2008, I had read three of his books and they gave me hope that there was a market for the type of nonfiction writing that I planned on publishing throughout my 30s. Like Johnson, I wanted to fuse historical research with the ideas of literature to explore the relationships between technology, society, and our sense of self. (The kind of book that Jia Tolentino published last year at just 30-years-old!)
I can picture 27-year-old me seated in the patio of my favorite Medellin coffee shop overlooking Parque del Poblado, reading through the RSS feeds of the 50 or so bloggers I followed weekly. I’m not sure what part of Steven Johnson’s 40th birthday blog post resonated with me then, but I was right that it would resonate with me now. On the acceleration of time as we grow older, Johnson wrote:
One of the things that’s always stuck with me from my research is that human beings vary predictably in their perception of time as they age. Time literally seems to go faster the older you get — not just in the span of decades, but also in the span of minutes. Put someone in a room without a clock or watch and ask them to guess when an hour has passed, and on average, the older person will perceive the hour zipping by faster than the younger person.
The older I get, the more I think that one of the keys to happiness — or at least one of the signs of happiness — is getting to some kind of place where time seems to be passing at the right speed.Turning 40 by Steven Berlin Johnson
Perhaps 27-year-old me knew that 40-year-old me would still need to read that. While I occasionally get glimpses of the splendor of life when it passes at the right speed, all too often I lament the misalignment between the passing of time and the unreasonable expectations of my mind. A friend once described the barely recognizable background anxiety of time passing too quickly as the hum of a refrigerator: you don’t realize just how much noise it’s making until it stops, leaving you with a sense of peace that you didn’t even realize was missing or possible. I felt that sense of peace last week as I swam alone in the warm waters of Shaver Lake while the sun set behind the horizon of sequoia trees; time was passing at the right speed.
What does it mean for time to pass at the right speed? For me, it means that each moment carries a reasonable amount of significance. Reading a book with the tingling pleasure that comes from making associations between ideas. Or conversing with a friend and recognizing the slow warmth of affection filling my heart. Or feeling moved by a piece of music as if it were a drug. When time moves too slowly, then the weight of significance can be a burden. But much more likely for me is that by trying to cram too much into a single day, each moment loses its meaning, a race between wanting to do more and all of it meaning less.
The Internet is so saturated with unsolicited life advice; why would I ever share my midlife self-absorption publicly? In case it serves someone else, as Steven Johnson’s birthday reflection from 12 years ago served me then, and served me again today. Part 1 focuses on what I have learned about myself; part 2 is about how the world has shaped me, and an examination of my place in the world.
The second half of life
We live the first half of our life, according to James Hollis, reacting unconsciously to the expectations of our parents — either by attempting to please them or rebelling against them, or often (and certainly for me) a mixture of both. Even if we spend the first half of life rebelling against our parents, we still define ourselves in opposition to their expectations rather than in pursuit of our own ideals and essence. Quoting Jung, Hollis insists that “the greatest burden the child must bear is the unlived life of the parent.”
Hollis calls the first half of life is “one giant, unavoidable mistake.” By ‘mistake’ he doesn’t mean something we should regret, but rather that we have little awareness of the unconscious forces that shape our personalities, relationships, and behaviors. We inherit our parents’ insecurities and complexes, and our personalities develop in large part to protect us from the pains of childhood. Some of us become avoidant or controlling, others develop a deep fear of abandonment, some of us become obsessive-compulsive in an attempt to control the chaos of our surroundings. And it’s not just our personalities; we unconsciously structure the first half of our lives to please our parents. It’s only after coming to a crisis, or reaching some arbitrary metrics of achievement — perhaps a stable paycheck, or owning a home, or starting a family — that we begin “the second half of life” by questioning the patterns of our behavior.
We begin to question who we are apart from our roles in society and the activities that fill our days. What drives our actions? What gives us a true sense of purpose? Does it come from within, or deep down are we still repeating the same unconscious and unattainable efforts to gain our parents’ recognition and pride? The second half of life is an opportunity to understand the forces that shaped our sense of self during the first half of life; and with sufficient courage and determination, it is an opportunity to develop a more authentic sense of self based on what we discover.
Love, Meaning, Health, and Money
One of the great realizations of my 30s came just last year during a long flight from London to San Francisco. I had just finished watching An Israeli Love Story based on the true story of the son of Israel’s second president, who leaves Jerusalem to build a kibbutz, and his wife, who becomes a theater director in Tel Aviv.
Like so many tragic love stories, the film is based on the sacrifices that couples must make as they seek to balance their needs for love, a sense or purpose, good health, and material comforts. Perhaps we don’t pursue a job that gives us a greater sense of purpose because it won’t pay for the material comforts we desire. Or maybe we sacrifice our health — sleeping and exercising less — for the love of our children. Or maybe we choose to walk away from a romantic relationship because we feel it distracts us from our purpose.
Flying over the Rocky Mountains, it’s as if I had put on glasses to see clearly for the first time. It dawned on me with a liberating lightness that those four great needs of life will always be in tension with one another and never fully realized. I felt comfort and satisfaction in having forged something close to a healthy balance throughout my 30s.
Becoming confident in my personality
It took me a very long time to understand the concept of self-love. In fact, my very idea of love was to care about someone so much that I put their interests ahead of my own. I had thought that the greatest indicator of whether I truly loved someone was whether I was scared to lose them.
But over the past few years, my understanding of love has changed. Now I consider love to be a sense of affectionate admiration and a genuine desire for that person to love herself or himself. Or to put it in a way that I would have understood it in my 20s: a desire for someone to be fully confident in his or her personality.
For so long I wasn’t confident in my personality. Why wasn’t I better at telling stories? Why wasn’t I funnier? Why couldn’t I be more charismatic? Why did I get nervous in certain situations? It’s only during the past few years that I’ve genuinely grown to admire my personality. I can see more clearly now how parts of my personality that I disparaged — a chip on my shoulder, a desire to be liked, a reluctant introversion, taking myself too seriously, a contrarian eagerness to argue — have actually served me well throughout my life. I now appreciate those characteristics, especially as I’ve developed greater awareness and control over them.
Life is much easier now that I am confident in my personality. No longer do I feel the need to impress others or hide parts of myself. I spend less of my time in anxious preparation for meetings and presentations, more confident in my ability to show up as I am and contribute something worthwhile.
Gratitude, mindfulness and candor
How did I become confident in my personality? Over the past few years I developed three habits that have immensely improved my relationships with myself and with others. I wish I had discovered and developed these habits earlier in life.
- The first is the practice of gratitude as an alternative to unhealthy comparison. Every morning I receive a notification from the journaling app Day One on my phone to write a 5-minute entry about three things I’m grateful for. At first I was skeptical that I could come up with three new things every day, but now I find it difficult to stop at just three. Previously, I would start my days comparing myself superficially to others, wanting more money, influence, a better physique. Spending five minutes with a gratitude journal every morning shifts my attention to, say, how much I love the taste of salted peanut butter on freshly toasted bread, or the smell of saltwater on my skin after I swim in the ocean, or the way my wife holds my hand when we’re walking together in our neighborhood park.
- Each day after lunch I sit or lay down for 27 minutes and listen to a guided meditation to develop “loving-kindness.” (Yes, even when I worked in an office, pre-corona.) For the first ten minutes, I pay attention to my body and my emotions, accepting how I feel now rather than thinking about the future. For the next ten minutes, I focus my attention on four different people: myself, a dear friend, a random acquaintance, and someone I struggle with. I wish each of these four people to be happy, healthy, and relieved from any suffering they face. Then I picture the four of us all together, each genuinely wanting the best for one another. It’s shocking to me how radically this 27-minute daily exercise changes my perspective and how I relate to people. If you know me in person, it’s likely that I’ve thought about you several times during these daily meditations.
- Last but certainly not least is the practice of non-violent communication. The 5-hour audio book by Marshall Rosenberg is the closest I’ve come to discovering a religious text, a dogma I could subscribe to. Rosenberg’s central tenet is that every time we sulk or grow angry or resentful, it’s because we have an unmet need that we haven’t been able to express to others. The book redefined my notion of maturity: the ability to identify the roots of our emotions and communicate our needs and feelings candidly with others.
My 20s and early 30s would have been so much easier and less turbulent if I had developed these three habits sooner. In a blink, I would have traded in my college education for four years focused on gratitude, meditation, and non-violent communication. Alas, better late than never.
I’m excited for the second half of life. To continue the journey. But also to start new journeys. To deepen my most important friendships. But also to meet new friends. To revisit the places, music, movies, and books of my youth. And to explore new places and culture. And hopefully, for time to finally pass at the right speed.